Campaigning 101: How Obama’s Education Agenda Will Impact Future Presidencies

Topics: Education Policy, ESSA

campaigning-101-education Last night’s State of the Union address was unusually short, setting the tone for what it sure to be an underwhelming legislative year. But before we hit pause until Election Day, it’s worth a quick look back on President Obama’s two terms in office to see how it will forever change education policy in our country. What have the past seven years taught us about the next four?

Productivity is Possible with a Little Creative Interpretation of the Law

When Congress could not agree on a path forward for reauthorization of the long-overdue Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the Obama Administration decided to write its own script. Tired of sitting on the sideline, U.S. Department of Education staff took advantage of a loosely written ESEA provision to create a comprehensive waiver opportunity that helped states circumvent many of the law’s onerous provisions. While the outcome was a mixed bag, everyone can agree that this strategy represents a new way forward for future administrations.

Trust Your Team, The Bully Pulpit is Overrated

While the President and Secretary of Education hold coveted positions, they are by no means the only players on the team. State and district leaders hold equally important positions that come with their own set of political challenges. Future administrations must respect their role, trust their input, and let them lead when it makes sense. The Obama Administration learned this lesson the hard way as it faced battles over issues such as common core standards and teacher evaluations.

Innovation is More Than a Buzz Word

The Obama Administration was remarkably successful right out of the gate with its series of competitive innovation programs including Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation program. States, districts, and education organizations catered to federal requirements in hopes of securing resources to advance their agendas. Although most of these competitive programs fell victim to politics, the spirit of innovation remains strong across the country. States are now following suit with a flurry of education innovation bills, programs, and even innovation divisions within state government. The next President should capitalize on this energy.

An Idea is only as Good as it’s Evidence

The best messaging and communications specialists in Washington, D.C., are no match for education media and advocates that are eager to find fault with an education proposal. The past two presidential terms are marked by negative headlines pointing to lack of evidence for key education initiatives including Obama’s teacher effectiveness proposal and his infamous school improvement models. Even recently the media is quick to point out that his victory lap over record high graduation rates is unfounded as scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) fell for the first time in two decades. Candidates and elected leaders must backup ideas with solid evidence of success.

Education is the Great Uniter

Education is a powerful campaign issue. Just ask Congressional leaders who finally passed a bipartisan reauthorization of ESEA late last year at a time when political leaders could agree on nothing – and I mean nothing. Americans care about the future of their children, the state of the economy, and their national security, and they seem to get that it’s all tied to the strength of our education system. Presidential candidates should raise the level of debate in this country by talking about education issues on the campaign trail. We encourage them to start with a quick read of KnowledgeWorks’ presidential playbook at for ideas and concrete recommendations to strengthen our education system for the challenges of tomorrow. A strong education platform will pay dividends in the voting booth.